I was enjoying fried plantain and sipping yerba maté tea, a mainstay in South America I'm told, immersing myself in the Latin spirit of Dolphin Mall, outside central Miami and five miles west of the airport. It's easy to feel a south-of-the-border vibe in the 850-seat food court (above), where many South American dishes are served and mostly Spanish is spoken. Add to that the nonstop series of hurricanes blowing over from the Caribbean to remind me that Florida is just a strong wind away from Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Taubman Center Inc.'s 1.4 million-square-foot mall is unique. Opened to much fanfare in March 2001 to serve the large local Hispanic population — almost 1 million people within 10 miles in the $75,000 income range — and South American tourists, Dolphin is Taubman's only value mall. It features a racetrack design, with five merchandise districts, including Ramblas (“walk”), Playa (“beach”) and Moda (“style”), differentiated by varying architectural details. It's brightly colored and the long loop is fun to walk around.

Taubman had grand ambitions. But it couldn't have planned on the horrors of September 11, which slashed air travel and consumer spending. In mid-2002, while the center was still feeling post-9/11 weakness, Taubman acquired partner Swerdlow Real Estate Group's 50 percent interest, bringing Taubman's total investment to $268 million, implying a first-year return of 4.5 percent, according to J. P. Morgan Securities Inc.

The mall has been fighting an uphill battle since — but it may finally be winning. “It appears that after a couple years of weakness, things are starting to turn around,” Morgan analysts reported in late August. “And, while we don't expect returns on the mall to turn on a dime, we believe that our visit gave us a marginally more positive stance on this asset.” Taubman has noted that it expects yield to approach 9 percent by 2007.

Taubman doesn't disclose occupancy or sales figures, but earlier this year the Morgan analysts estimated about 20 percent year-over-year comp-store sales growth in six months.

You couldn't tell by my visit. The parking lot seemed empty, and there were relatively few shoppers. But that could have been fallout from the hurricanes. Charley had just chewed up part of the state, Frances was headed toward the east coast and Ivan was building up steam. Residents were busier buying bottled water than bagging bargains at the Burlington Coat Factory. Alcohol, too, was a big seller as Floridians hunkered down to await the latest weather alert.

So what has caused the recent growth? The addition of brand names, including Polo and L'Oréal, which are expected by year's end, is partially responsible, according to Morgan. Other draws include popular restaurants, led by Texas de Brazil Churrascaria, and the success of the cineplex, considered No. 3 in the state. In November, a 35,000-square-foot bowling facility will open.

Moreover, the analysts said, Taubman may announce the addition of a large anchor that will combine and occupy the two remaining vacant anchor spaces in the coming quarters. No specifics have been provided.

So, assuming the hurricanes ease up, the outlook for Dolphin Mall appears bright.

Vitals

Location: Miami

Size: 1.4 million sq. ft., 250 stores

Opened: 2001

Owner: Taubman Centers Inc.

Major stores include: Marshalls MegaStore, Burlington Coat Factory, Off 5th Saks Fifth Avenue Outlet Store